For the week following my previous blog the whole of India was celebrating the Hindu festival of Diwali. They celebrate it like we would christmas and the streets were scattered with lit candles and kids setting off fireworks.. The Indians love noise and for the entire week they were letting off fireworks and bangers some which sounded more like a bomb going off than a banger! It wasn't restricted to the evening either, 730 in the morning and it all starts again. I spent the main evening of the festival in the city of Udapur where they filmed the James Bond movie Octopussy. I sat at a rooftop restaurant watching the Indians make our bonfire night look pathetic! Just about every rule in the firework code gets broken. I saw a small child let a firework off in their hand, kids returning to them after they had been lit and people standing a metre away from a rocket as it goes off. The son of the guesthouse owner was 8 and was walking around with a lit splint leaning over a box of rockets. Later in the evening he was lighting rockets and throwing sparklers across the rooftops at the other kids! Us travellers got involved, with the festivities, how could you resist a pack of 4 fireworks for 20p! We had a huge firework which cost £6 had 50 seperate munitions and lasted almost 3 minutes!
The city of Jaisalmer is close to the Pakistan border and is where you can find one of India's most stunning forts. Its similar to St Malo or Dubrovnik and inside the walls there are a myriad of narrow streets to explore, except, this is India and you cant get a moments peace without being hassled by a merchant trying to flog you tat and shouting "I give you 99% discount" and "give me one chance to rip you off". I have found walking around the streets in India draining as you are constantly on your guard for obstacles such as the motorbikes and tuk-tuks which try and run you over (I've been bashed once already), and then there are the cows which I have become deeply suspicious of after one with massive horns charged me. The only way to get peace and quiet is to go to a rooftop cafe which has been a god send - I doubt I would have survived without having those sanctuaries of peace and sanity. On my final night in Jaisalamer I sat drinking with a friend and noticed the chef walking passed with a nice white shirt. Further scrutiny showed that this was the shirt with horrible dirt marks which I had chucked out in the morning. The chef had been through my rubbish and found my shirt! We had a good laugh at this and so did the other hotel staff as the chef told them that a friend had given it to him.
The train and bus journeys always produce something for the blog. One journey, I had booked a train ticket 5 days in advance to Jodhpur only to be put on the waiting list. I was first on the list and when I turned up at the station the arrogant guard after spending 5 minutes on the phone to his friend ignoring my query, told me they didn't have any seats. I was told to get in cattle class and sit where I could. I wouldn't have minded this so much if it wasn't for it being a night journey. Not for the first time I walked along the platform muttering the words "fuck India" before finding a horribly uncomfortable chair and sitting upright for 6 hours with my bag strapped to my chest in case anyone got any bright ideas if I fell asleep. Theft does happen in fact I lost my MP3 player on a train and i'm pretty sure someone took it as I fell asleep with it on my bed. I also heard of someone just last week who had their bag full of valuables stolen while they were using it as a pillow to sleep on the train! The train to Jodhpur was more like a train to alcatraz, bodies everywhere, you couldn't even see the floor and to make matters worse the train was travelling through the desert so the carriage became full of the dust as there are no windows!
Another horrible journey was a night trip via bus enduring 8 hours sat upright on a bus going over horrendous pot holed roads and thats when we were lucky enough to have a road! Someone warned me not to do a particular journey by bus and I could never remember which one it was, well it was the one I took!
Heading to Ranthambore National Park I was in a berth on the train with an Indian family of 7. We quickly got chatting and I got quizzed on my marital status including who and when i'm going to marry! Also got put on a spot by the teenage lad who asked me not only what my salary was but also how much I have in the bank account. These are routine questions asked and they don't see it as prying. They insisted on sharing their dinner with me all made by this woman who was an absolute goddess in the kitchen - some of the best food i've had in India. Then came the clean up, everything including 3 tupperware boxes went out the window. They saw my reaction which was half laughing and half "are you serious?!" They encouraged me to chuck out a tub of rubbish. Anyone who knows me will know that I hate littering but I couldn't disappoint so I littered and they christened me an Indian. It reminds me of a driver I had in Jaisalmer, we saw the car in front chuck a whole bag of rubbish out of the window and the driver put his hands in the air and shouted patriotically "I love India"!! They really don't mind living in their own shit.
Ranthambore is the home of around 50 tigers. Queuing up for a safari ticket was something else, it was like John Lennon had come back from the dead and tickets for the Beatles reform gig were going on sale, it was absolute mayhem. There was around 200 people in a queue (I use the word queue loosely) and no one had any idea what was going on. Arguments broke out, people were jumping the queue, westerners were looking at each other gobsmacked and all of this for a 3 hour drive where you only have a 20% chance of seeing a tiger. There was a single space available and after 2 and a half hours in the riot I was plucked out and told I had a seat...ahhhh the benefits of travelling solo! I clutched my ticket like it was gold dust and to round off a day of luck I saw a tiger in the wild! Unknown to the occupants of our hotel that night, a tiger had come out of the park and was wondering the streets. The owner knew about this but didn't tell us for a good reason, this particular tiger had already killed 15 people!
From Ranthambore I went to the holy city of Pushkar for the annual camel festival and as you would expect, mayhem! Supposedly they have 20,000-50,000 camels, figures vary but all I can say thats a shit load of camels and surprisngly not as smelly as expected but then again my nose has become accustomed to bad smells since I arrived in India. They had camel racing which involved 5 camels bursting in to a small arena with small kids riding them, one camel went in to the crowd, the other ran out of the stadium and the other 3 camels just ran around in no particular direction and somehow there was a winner! That's pretty typical of India, even the camels have no idea what the hell's going on. Other events included the camel decoration competition where they decorated camels and judges voted on which of the whored up beasts they preferred. Unfortunately I left the day before the moustache growing competition, the turban tying contest and the see how many people can get on a camel challenge.
The Taj Mahal was every bit impressive as you would imagine. Last year they had on average 17,000 people visit the Taj every day so you are sharing the place with a lot of people. Everyone is surprised that the Taj is in the middle of a city (Agra) as opposed to the middle of nowhere like the photos would have you believe. The small streets of Agra were a noisy affair, walls of speakers were dotted around the place blasting out hindi music. At one point there was small parade of towed floats which came to an abrupt halt when they realised their floats were too high to get under the telephone wires hanging across the street! At the Taj I met two English girls and fellow beer drinkers - it had been almost a month and a half since I have socialised with Brits and I forgot what a crude bunch we are! Anyway, they don't make it easy to drink in India, our waiter at the Taj hotel gave us a discerning look when we ordered our second round and by the time the third round came he had a look on his face which said "this is going to get out of hand"! We gave him a big tip to encourage the serving of alcohol to other travellers. Pushkar was dry apart from two bars who serve beer and deliver it to your table like a drug dealer would hand over drugs.
The following day we headed off for an afternoon at the Kaladeo Ghana National Park which is one of the top bird sanctuaries in the world. We hired some bicycles and set off to watch an incredible amount of bird life with just the noise of the path, our creaking bikes and the occasional mob of Indians making a racket and scaring off the birds. We saw antelope and jackals and the most elusive creature in the park, the Jungle Cat which looks like a supersize domestic cat. The naturalists back at the park office said that it was a jackal but I had a photo of both creatures and one is clearly a cat and the other dog. Very glad that we didn't hire one of these "experts" if they can't tell the difference between a cat and a dog.
The city of Varanasi is the most chaotic unforgiving place I think I have ever been. Hassling is constant and you cannot be left alone for 2 minutes. I've definitely become more rude since i've been in India and I have slowly realised that being rude is the only way of getting rid of them! The place is mind blowing and my visit was timed with another huge celebration in the Hindu calendar. Varanasi is one of the most holiest places in the Hindu religion and is where many devote hindus come to cremate their loved ones. I spent an afternoon watching bodies being burned on the banks of the River Ganges. It is utterly surreal watching the whole process. The bodies in their decorated body bags are dipped in the heavily polluted waters of the Ganges. After dipping and drying they are put on a fire and cremated in front of your very eyes. It's a little undignified, the bodies are queued up by the river bank laying in the mud which includes goodness knows what else, the whole place is full of cows, goats and dogs and you have the public watching what is supposed to be a very private moment for the families. Oh and I was standing there having a cup of tea while I was watching all of this! I met up with the English lasses again and we spent some time in a lassi shop watching funeral processions marching down the small alleyway with a team of men holding up the body bag on wooden splints and chanting like they were soldiers. The morning of my departure I decided to do one last boat ride on the Ganges and i'm glad I did. There were thousands of people on the ghats (the steps leading to the river) bathing in the Ganges carrying out their rituals and supposedly washing away a lifetime of sins. Some were drinking the water which I have been told will kill a forigner because it is so heavily polluted. It was a site of colour, sound and was one of the most amazing sites I have ever seen. My boatman got me right in front of the action and I was alone in front of hundreds of people floating on my boat snapping away in the most surreal light. No one seemed to notice me as they were so immersed in their spiritual cleansing.
Foodwise, the highlight food was a South Indian Dosa which is like a huge crispy pancake with a masala filling and various dahls/dips. We ate at a local restaurant with the locals who kept on peeking at our eating habits. If you haven't seen an Indian eat, they pick up their rice and curry with their right hand, make a ball and cram it in. The bill for our 3 meals and a drink each came to exactly 2 quid!
India has been a real test of charachter. There are times where I have just felt like banging my head against a brick wall because its such a pain getting things done. The other day it took me an hour to post a parcel because they had to have the parcel wrapped in a cotton sheet which had to be sewed on then dabbed with melted wax to stop the stitchings from coming undone! Then they needed a photocopy of my passport so I had to find a photocopying machine as the post office doesn't have one and to top off an hour of frustration I got in to an argument with the man behind the counter for being rude towards me. The trains are great when you can get on the darn things - booking them has been straight forward so long as booked 2 weeks in advance! Another challenge is trying not to get ripped off and in some towns its unavoidable. Everyone is out to make money from you and I have lost my patience with people even telling one extremely persistent tout where he can put his tuk-tuk to which he responded with a wagging finger "mind your language mister". India brings out a side of your personality which doesn't come out anywhere else in the world! Its hard to explain what its like here, everyone raved to me how mad the place is but until you have been here you just can't appreciate it, its an assault on the senses, the smells, the sounds and the sights, its overload and its in your face. I know its cliche but its an experience and it makes you appreciate just how civilised we are! (no offence to Indian readers)
I am now in Kathmandu in Nepal after almost 20 hours on trains and horrendous buses. One of the trains got delayed by 2 hours in transit as people were pulling the emergency chain so that they could get off where the train wasn't stopping. If you are caught doing this you get a 2000rupee fine and six months in prison! HARSH! I arrived at the border at 10pm and after getting my passport stamped out of India I walked down a dark eerie street all by myself. When I got to the Nepal side I had to have my Nepali visa processed by the guard who unfortunately had shut the office for the night! So I had to knock on the office door and get him out of bed!
I am now looking for trekking partners as I shall be starting the 2 week return trek to the Everest base camp which involves a flight to the most dangerous airport in the world, Lukla. I do question my sanity sometimes, its freezing cold here and its supposed to get down to -20 at night in the mountains. One for the biography assuming I survive.